Surviving the
Restaurant Meal

Eating out is often a recipe for wreaking havoc on your diet.
It doesn’t have to be.

June 2011

By Allan Richter

Anthony Santillio used to chow down on chicken parmesan heros and just about any fast food. A year and a half ago he weighed 215 pounds—a lot for his medium frame. Today, the 27-year-old New York construction worker is much more careful about what he eats, especially when he goes to restaurants. Typically, Santillio seeks out buffet bars where he limits himself to the salads, maybe some grilled chicken. He weighs 155 pounds. “I always try to eat healthy,” Santillio says, “but it’s been a tough struggle. I was a big man.”

Eating a healthy restaurant meal can be a daunting challenge for anyone, big or not. Plenty has been written about the minefield of fat and calories that diners must navigate when eating out. In his book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (Bloomsbury Books), Anthony Bourdain famously exposed how liberally even the best restaurants use butter on just about every dish for taste. In Fast Food Nation (Perennial), Eric Schlosser reported on how fast food, with its triple-burger specials and love of bacon in all forms, became a fixture of the American landscape and helped fuel the country’s obesity epidemic.

In all media, we’ve been warned of the dangers of supersizing, carb-loading and sugar rushes. Study after study shows that we tend to eat much healthier at home than in restaurants. Yet we continue to dine out in droves—and order the worst foods in terms of health when we do. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies 30% of Americans as obese.

“Its almost a psychological thing because a lot of people think of going out as splurging and ordering what you might not be able to have at home, so sometimes people eat in an unhealthy way because that’s their choice,” says Tim Zagat, founder of the popular Zagat restaurant guides. “They sometimes want to go out and do things they would not do normally and that they know are not good for them, but they think of it as going after fun, and fun means having the biggest, fanciest dessert they can have.”

Demand for Healthy Fare

That need to indulge probably means diners will always be able to order a big stack of pancakes and a hot fudge sundae, or even visit a steakhouse that will put your name and picture up if you can polish off a 72-ounce top sirloin in one sitting. But times are changing. A heightened dietary consciousness is working its way into restaurant menus across the country. Another generation of consumers may never remember that the “F” in KFC once stood for “Fried.”

Why the change? It’s just good business. Restaurants are looking to meet consumer demand for healthier options, what Zagat calls “green” food.

Top Healthy
Restaurant Options

Fast Food (large)
Jason’s Deli
Panera Bread
Atlanta Bread Co.
Baja Fresh

Fast Food (mega)
Taco Bell
Burger King

Quick Refreshment
Jamba Juice
Smoothie King
Peet’s Coffee & Tea

Full Service
Bonefish Grill
California Pizza Kitchen
Mimi’s Café
P.F. Chang’s
Cheesecake Factory

Large-chains with
up to 5,000 U.S. outlets

Mega-chains with more than 5,000 U.S. outlets

Quick refreshment serves coffee, ice cream, frozen yogurt or smoothies as main offering.

Number of surveyors polled=6,518

Source: Zagat 2010 Fast-Food/Full Service Chain Restaurants Survey

And consumers are willing to pay more for those options. “Statistically, the numbers have been going up,” Zagat says. “We’ve been measuring this for years, and there seems to be a gradual increase. Ten years ago, where maybe 40% of people said they would spend more for what I classify as green food, now 60% of people would pay more. That’s really a huge increase in a period of 10 years.”

Those numbers account for the steady increase in health-focused eateries featuring locally sourced and organic foods that are cropping up all over the place. At the same time, you can now order salad with light dressing at Burger King and oatmeal with raisins at McDonald’s, just two examples of the conversion—albeit slow and limited—at fast food restaurants. In fact, of chains with more than 5,000 outlets, both McDonald’s and Burger King are among the five fast-food chains that consumers said offer the healthiest options, a 2010 Zagat survey showed.

Also driving the transition to more nourishing restaurant fare are growing worries over contaminated food, compounded by the earthquake-stricken reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan. Now some restaurants are adding radiation detectors so they can scan fish, although health officials have said radiation from the Japanese nuclear plant is not likely to show up in the food supply.

But choosing the healthiest dishes can be tricky, at least from the standpoint of more conventional barometers than radiation. A cottage industry of books that count calories and ingredients in restaurant fare shows that what you think you see on your plate isn’t always what you eat.

One of the popular titles in this genre is the Eat This, Not That (Rodale) series. At first glance, a health-conscious diner at Denny’s, for example, might choose the chain’s Heartland Scramble omelet over a meal of its top sirloin steak and fries. In fact, the omelet had 1,150 calories, 66 grams of fat and 2,800 milligrams of sodium compared to the steak dish, with 420 calories, 21 grams of fat and 920 milligrams of sodium, according to Eat This, Not That Restaurant Survival Guide, published last year.

Easier ID

A federal menu-labeling law, expected to be enacted next year, could help consumers cut through the confusion—and curb appetites. Under this law, restaurant chains with at least 20 locations would be required to print calorie counts on menus and make other nutritional information available upon request.

The National Restaurant Asso­ciation backs the proposed federal regulation because states and local municipalities have been enacting their own menu-labeling laws. Those local laws put restaurant chains with operations in many states at a disadvantage because complying with disparate regulations adds costs to doing business. “We also wanted to support it because consumers have the right to know and they can make the best educated choice when dining out,” explains Joy Dubost, PhD, RD, the NRA’s nutrition director.

Chefs believe they can accommodate consumers if the dining public takes to heart the new calorie-consciousness that would arise from menu labeling. Nearly all the chefs (93%) in a recent survey said they could reduce calories in foods on their menus by up to 25% without customers noticing, as reported in the February 2011 issue of the journal Obesity.

Most of the chefs (71%) in the Obesity journal survey ranked taste as the biggest factor in successfully introducing reduced-calorie menu items. Some 38% of the chefs said low consumer demand would be the biggest barrier to including reduced-calorie menu items, with 25% citing the need for skills and training and 18% pointing to high ingredient costs.

Among other top culinary trends identified for this year by chefs are more locally sourced meats, seafood and produce; sustainability; providing nutritionally balanced children’s dishes; and attention to gluten-free and food allergy concerns, according to the NRA’s 2011 trends survey of more than 1,500 chefs.

Even before new rules and menu changes take hold, there is no shortage of strategies endorsed by nutrition and health advocates if you want to visit restaurants and maintain well-being. Dietician and diabetes educator Hope Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDE, says those strategies can be distilled into two steps: decrease fat intake and control portion size. “It’s easy to say, complex to do,” acknowledges Warshaw, author of Eat Out, Eat Right: The Guide to Healthier Restaurant Eating (Surrey).

“You can eat healthy in 99% of restaurants,” Warshaw says. “Let’s just look at Chinese; you can have a reasonably healthy Chinese meal or a very unhealthy Chinese meal, like deep fried eggrolls and you end up with fried bananas and sweet and sour this and that with a heavy sauce in between. Or you can have steamed brown rice, a bowl of healthy soup and a dish with a large amount of veggies. It’s a combination of how you order and the quantity that you eat.”


There’s no cookie-cutter approach. “What you can do depends on the kind of restaurant you’re in,” Warshaw says. “What you can do standing at a McDonald’s counter on a weekday at noon is very different than what you can do at a sit-down fine dining restaurant. But I can certainly stand at a Subway restaurant, where my sandwich is being made to order, and I can say, ‘Hold the mayo,’ and I can get whole grain bread. Where you can customize, do.”

Most restaurants are willing to accommodate customers by tailoring orders to their health needs, Zagat says, but customers are often reluctant to divert from the menu. “We have asked a lot of restaurants if they were asked to provide virtually anything that a client said they needed for health reasons, whether the restaurant would try to do it without giving the client a hard time,” Zagat says.

“Overwhelmingly, 90% plus of the restaurants said it is their job to make the client happy. If you said you want a 6-ounce steak instead of a 14-ounce steak, or if you want sautéed instead of creamed spinach, you got it.

“The big problem is the client doesn’t like to tell the restaurant they want something other than what’s on the menu,” Zagat says. “They feel embarrassed, and they should not be.”

Dining out with children can be one of the biggest tests of healthful eating at restaurants. “We’ve lowered our standards ever since we had a kid,” says Giovanna Capizolita, 33, a Vine­land, New Jersey, high school teacher. Her 2 ½ year old son can be loud, active and messy, prompting Capizolita and her husband to take the toddler to fast-food restaurants. The boy typically favors children’s menus, but those items are more loaded with sugar and fried foods.

Warshaw suggests that parents order soups, appetizers and salads to give children a healthier alternative to kids’ menu items. And some restaurants offer small or half portions of many appetizers, entrees and desserts, notes the National Res­taurant Association. Some establishments may not advertise the availability of smaller portions, so ask. If they don’t, the NRA says, you can take half your meal home and save it for the next day.

Often, small, subtle changes can make a big difference without sacrificing much taste, the NRA notes. Order food grilled, steamed, broiled, poached or roasted instead of fried. Opt for tomato-based instead of butter or cream sauces. Likewise, choose broth-based soups instead of creamed.

Ask for whole wheat or whole grain pasta or rice. Share your dessert, skip it altogether or choose fruit and sorbet.

Raise your awareness about the challenges to healthful eating, adds Jared Koch, author of Clean Plates Manhattan: A Guide to the Healthiest, Tastiest and Most Sustainable Restaurants (Craving Wellness), which touts nearly 200 pages of healthy eateries. Understanding physical cravings, emotional attachments to food, cultural conditioning and advertising can go a long way.

Labeling menus with calorie counts can help, but it’s just one tool to help diners combat obesity. Angel Koerber, 42, a German tourist on a recent vacation in New York, says American restaurants should learn from their European counterparts, where diners are allowed to take their time at their tables, encouraging more healthful digestion. “You can sit for two hours or more,” she notes.

Santillio, the New York construction worker who lost 60 pounds in the past year and a half, supports labeling menus with key nutritional details. However, he adds that people will need to feel a more personal stake in their health for real change. Santillio took the steps to improve his diet only after his father was diagnosed with diabetes and congestive heart failure. “Unfortunately,” he says, “it’s going to take that one family member or friend who will have health problems.”

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